Sunday, February 22, 2009

Big words

Some time ago, I learned about a book simply referred to as "Fowler". A book identified only by the the name of its author must certainly be an important one, and so I sought out the title of the book, which turned out to be "Modern English Usage," or "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage." The former title appears on the spine, while the latter appears on the first page of the dictionary.

While visiting a friend's office one time, I noticed two very old books on a desk. One of them was a desktop Oxford English dictionary. The other was a 1926 edition of Fowler. The book belonged to neither my friend nor his friend, the only other inhabitant of the office. So I took it.

There were dictionaries aplenty in every classroom of my grade school and most of my high school classrooms as well (mainly those which were mostly likely to host an English class). We were encouraged to use them. We also learned grammar throughout. Or at least the teachers tried to teach us. Thus, we had access to the bits and pieces of the language, and we knew the mechanics of how these bits and pieces fit together. But no effort was put into telling us how to use the language, or even where we might go to find such advice. Style guides by any author if they existed at all in the classroom, were never mentioned by our teachers. There are a variety of types of entries. Some give more detailed explanations of certain words than a dictionary would give. Other entries dispel various taboos about grammar that were invented when the first authors English grammar books seem to have been under the impression that the language was a dialect of French [1]. Some entries identify pitfalls of writing, such as writing sentences which, although meaningful and grammatical, are too long and complex, or how best to write a letter (not so much relevant anymore). Others are designed to give you an answer of "Yes" when you ask the question "Does this sound right?"

Among the pitfalls of writing are the entries on Pedantic Humour and Polysylabic Humour, which I reproduce below.

Pedantic Humour: No essential distinction is intended between this and Polysyllabic Humour; one or the other name is more appropriate to particular specimens, and the two headings are therefore useful for reference;but they are manifestations of the same implus, and the few remarks needed may be made here for both. A warning is necessary, because we have all of us, except the abnormally stupid, been pedantic humourists in our time. We spend much of our childhood picking up a vocabulary; we like to air our latest finds; we discover that our elders are tickled when we come out with a new name that they thought beyond us; we devote some pains to tickle them further, and there we are, pedants and polysyllabicisits all. The impulse is healthy for children, and nearly universal — which is just why warning is necessary; for among so many there will always be some who fail to realize that the clever habit applauded at home will make them insufferable abroad. Most of those who are capable of writing well enough to find readers do learn sooner or later that playful use of long or learned words is a one-sided game boring the reader more than it pleases the writer, that the impulse to it is a danger-signal — for there must be something wrong with what they are saying if it needs recommending by such puerilities — and that yielding to the impulse is a confession of failure. But now and then even an able writer will go on believing that the incongruity between simple things to be said and out-of-the-way words to say them in has a perennial charm. Perhaps it has for the reader who never outgrows hobbledehoyhood; but for the rest of us it is dreary indeed. It is possible that acquaintance with such labels as pedantic and polysyllabic humour may help to shorten the time it takes to cure a weakness incident to youth.

An elementary example or two should be given. The words homoeopathic (small or minute), sartorial (of clothes), interregnum (gap), or familiar ones: -- To introduce 'Lords of Parliament' in such a homoeopathic doses as to leave a preponderating power in the hands of those who enjoy a merely hereditary title./While we were motoring out to the station I took stock of his sartorial aspect, which had change somewhat since we parted./In his vehement action his breeches fall down and his waistcoat runs up, so that there is a great interregnum.

These words are like most that are much used in humour of either kind, both pedantic and polysyllabic. A few specimens that cannot be described as polysyllabic are added here, and for the large class of long words, the article Polysyllabic Humour should be consulted: -- ablution; aforesaid; beverage; bivalve (the succulent); caloric; cuticle; digit; domestics; eke (adv.); ergo; erstwhile; felicide; nasal organ; neighbourhood (in the n. of, = about); nether garments; optic (eye); parlous; vulpicide.

Polysyllabic Humour. See Pedantic Humour for a silght account of the impulse that suggests long or abstruse words as a means of entertaining the hearer. Of the long as distinguished from the abstruse, terminological exactitude for lie or falsehood is a favourable example, but much less amusing ad the hundredth than at the first time of hearing. Oblivious to their pristine nudity (forgetting they were stark naked) is a less familiar specimen. Nothing need here be added to hat was said in the other article beyond a short specimen list of long words or phrases that sensible people avoid. Batavian, Caledonian, Celestial, Hibernian and Milesian for Dutch, Scotch, Chinese, and Irish. Solution of continuity, femoral habiliments, refrain from lacteal addition, and olfactory organ for gap, breeches, take no milk, and nose. Osculatory, pachydermatous, matutinal, diminutive, fuliginous, fugacious, esurient, culinary, and minacious, for kissing, thick-skinned, morning, tiny, sooty, timid, hungry, kitchen, and threatening. Frontispiece, individual, eqitation, intermediary, cachinnation, and epidermis, for face, person, riding, means, laughter, and skin. Negotiate and peregrinate for tackle and travel.
All this being said, I want this book.

[1] One example of which is that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. This is pure nonsense, in part because it contradicts the evidence, and in part because it misstates the imagined problem. You're not allowed to do this in French. In English, there is nothing wrong with it. Quite often sentences can be rewritten to avoid it. Sometimes they cannot. Even if they can, the rewritten sentence often sounds awkward and artificial.

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